Recent Commonplace Entries


“The compact between the Security Service and Blunt was broken by a novice prime minister fifteen years later.” (on Thatcher in 1979, from Richard Davenport-Hines’s review of A Question of Retribution? by David Cannadine, in TLS, August 7)

“The study of history is not a simple amassing of knowledge . . . still less a technique; it is not even an exercise of wise judgment or clever analysis. It is, it must be, a discipline of the spirit, an act of faith in civilization.” (Sir Edgar Iffley, in Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Part One, Chapter Two)

“The brother, as well as being the local archaeologist, is a modern Churchman, which means, as far as I can see, an attachment to any and every belief save the dogma of his own religion.” (Gilbert Stokesay on Canon Portway, in Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Part One, Chapter Four)

“I will say one thing though: as historians we’ve got to tell the truth about the past as far as we know it, but that’s quite a different thing from searching into the truth of people’s lives here and now. All this prying and poking about into what other people prefer to keep hidden seems to me a very presumptuous and dangerous fashion.” (Sir Edgar Iffley, in Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Part Two, Chapter One)

“This lie, if lie it is, has become the cornerstone on which a whole false edifice may be erected. And even if its wasn’t so, even if it was just one single historical oddity, I see now that I’ve been wrong all these years in treating it lightly. If an historian has any function at all, it is to maintain honesty. The study of history can’t be the plaything of the sort of egoistic mockery that I’m suggesting Gilbert indulged in.” (Gerald Middleton, in Angus Wilson’s Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, Part Two, Chapter Two)

“’The community is in control of its rules, which are not imposed by outsiders, or invented by a caste of lawyers based on imagined universalist norms which are debated independently of the practices of the community in which they live.’ What does this mean? Is Sharia law okay in Bethnal Green? Or in some cases should a ‘caste of lawyers’ impose ‘imagined universalist norms’, like gender equality? It is not clear.”  (Richard V Reeves, in review of Paul Collier’s and John Kay’s Greed is Dead: Politics After Individualism, in Literary Review, July/August)

“Clearly MI5 and MI6 have trouble recruiting adequate intelligence agents, just as the GRU can no longer find killers with the finesse of Stalin’s Naum Eitingon and Pavel Sudoplatov, and British immigration officials cannot differentiate between a Russian football fan and a hitman.” (Donald Rayfield, in review of three books on Putin’s Russia, in Literary Review, July/August)

“We also learn – inter alia, as Henderson would doubtless say – that the author’s favourite place for morning coffee is the Kleines Café in Vienna’s Franzikanerplatz, where Stefan Zweig probably discussed the best way to bowl a googly with Karl Kraus.” (Stephen Bates, in review of Michael Henderson’s That Will be England Gone: The Last Summer of Cricket, in Literary Review, July/August)

“They came along in their dreary wartime mackintoshes, gas-mask cases filled with Spam sandwiches, and found bright cafes, music, flowers, modern furniture and a spirit of something that none of them had ever experienced in their lives.” (Terence Conran, on the 1951 Festival of Britain, to the Daily Telegraph in 2011, as reported in his NYT obituary, September 13)

“It’s such an English attitude, this inability to forgive the rest of the world for not being England.” (Frances Stonor Saunders, in The Suitcase, Part 3, in London Review of Books, September 10)

“Children of migrants or refugees often assume the role of liaison officers, connecting their parents to the new world in which they find themselves. They act as translators and interpreters, not just of language, but of signs, gestures, social codes. There is a significant shift, even reversal of roles, where the child becomes the mentor, taking the hand of the unsure parent. I think this is how my father lost his childhood.” (Frances Stonor Saunders, in The Suitcase, Part 3, in London Review of Books, September 10)

“’Fighting against far-right extremism is in the DNA of the police,’ said Michael Maatz, deputy chief of the state chapter of the police union GdP. ‘The fact that there are still officers that share radical, far-right and xenophobic content in chat groups is unbearable.’” (from report on North-Rhein Westphalia in NYT, September 17)

“Stern repeatedly emphasizes the ‘complexity’ of the conflict in Israel/Palestine and suggests that it can be explained by our ‘innate tendencies as humans’ to form into ‘an ingroup and an outgroup’, which he traces back to ‘our primitive ancestors.’” (Tom Sperlinger, in review of Kenneth S. Stern’s The Conflict over the Conflict, in TLS, September 18)

“He [Smuts] was always kindness itself to me, and I thought him then, and still think him, incomparably the greatest man I have ever met, possessing Churchill’s versatility and vision without his vices.” (Lord Tedder, in With Prejudice, p 286)

“As he paced to and from across the room, he [Smuts] shot the question at me: ‘Tedder. Has the British Army got no good generals?” (after the death of Gott, from Lord Tedder’s With Prejudice, p 325)

“The Russian High Command had disapproved of our dropping supplies into Poland on the grounds that such supplies fell into the hands of the German, or of partisans who were hostile to the Red Army. There was a good deal of truth in this, because the partisans to whom we were sending supplies looked to London and were not kindly disposed to the Russians.”  (Lord Tedder, in With Prejudice, p 642)

“I then offered him [Stalin] the box of cigars, with General Eisenhower’s compliments. He took his pipe out of his mouth, and said, ‘When do they go off?’ –  to which I appeared to flinch, looked at my wristwatch, and said, ‘They do not go off until I have gone.’ The small joke went down well. We then got straight down to business.” (Lord Tedder, in With Prejudice, pp 646-647)

“But it is also, most interestingly, a sustained study of the clash between the idea of historical truth as a set of objective facts waiting to be uncovered by rigorous inquiry and the more contemporary notion of it as a construct, amenable to (and fair game for) deliberate intervention.” (James Lasdun, in review of Ariel Sabar’s Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, in London Review of Books, September 24)

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